This is a follow up to my piece, “Pretty Hate Machine: News, Facebook, and the Culture of Mass Hysteria.” I called for readers (and myself) to hold themselves to higher standards when commenting on political affairs online. Here, I’m listing some guidelines that will hopefully lead to more civilized and fruitful discussions on Facebook and beyond.
- Listen: How often do you find yourself jumping into the deep end without even reading the full comment or the posted article? Take a moment to read and absorb what you’ve read, and try to fully understand their points, even if you wholeheartedly disagree.
- Let logic–not emotion!–be your guiding light: This goes along with the first one. The world isn’t going to end if you take a few minutes to first gather your thoughts. There’s no shot-clock on Facebook! When we respond quickly it is our emotional centers that are taking the lead. When we take the time, even just a few minutes, to process our thoughts, we tend to put out clearer and more poignant responses.
- Make your point, and move on: One of the most frustrating parts of arguing online is having to repeat yourself ad nauseam. Don’t do it. Say what you need to say, and leave the discussion. There’s no reason to post more than 1-2 comments in a thread, especially if it is a hostile one. Unfollow the post if you needed (I’ve had to do this with my own on occasion). It’s not worth it. There are better, more fulfilling ways to spend your day than on your smartphone, furiously typing away and beating a dead horse.
- Stay on point: A great way to keep the political debate going is by bringing up wholly unrelated topics, simply to piss off the other side. Avoid that temptation. For instance, there’s no reason to bring up climate change if the discussion is over Hillary Clinton’s emails.
- Don’t get personal: Golden rule territory here: treat others as you’d like yourself to be treated. Also, if you have to resort to name calling, perhaps your argument isn’t as good as you think it is.
- Be especially respectful of strangers and don’t assume: This is a good corollary to #5. Often we come across people we’ve never met (and are unlikely to ever meet) on Facebook. Be especially respectful of them; a joke that could fly with a friend or family member could all-too-easily be misconstrued on social media. Moreover, you have no idea who this person is, or what they’ve experienced first hand.
- Fact checking starts with yourself: It’s an unfortunate fact of modern life that with the collective knowledge of all of humanity at our fingertips, there is more misinformation than ever before. Don’t feed this cycle. Before posting, see if your claims are backed up by multiple reliable sources. And if you inadvertently share false information (as is all but inevitable these days), be humble when someone calls you out about it.
- Embrace uncertainty: Sometimes, indeed most of the time, “I don’t know” is an appropriate response. Are you an expert in the field? Did you study it at university? How much do you really know about the thing you’re ranting about? It’s OK not to feel strongly about a particular issue, or to admit that you don’t know much about a subject beyond the one article you read (or more often than not just read the headline).
- Seek a middle ground: The media does a good job at playing up our differences, but we don’t have to play that game. It is OK to cede some ground to the other side, understanding that almost no issue is black and white. This is not always possible, but we should go into a conversation at least keeping an open mind.
- Remember to laugh: Losing your sense of humor is the hallmark of every radical movement. Don’t become a radical. Of course politics is serious business, but if you can’t joke and laugh at your own side, you don’t deserve to criticize the other.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it could probably be summed up by just writing “don’t be an asshole.” I know on the Internet this is a bridge too far for most, but if we could start holding ourselves to better standards maybe our politicians will too? And if not, at least you won’t be losing any friends or relatives in the process of a heated debate.